8 Tips for Writing a Personal Statement
by Ann Levine
If you’re sitting down right now, trying to write the most brilliant, persuasive, powerful personal statement ever written, but your fingers are paralyzed on the keys, you’re not alone. “I hate to write about myself,” some tell me. Others say, “my life has been pretty boring/sheltered/standard/privileged.” Still others say, “I went through hard times but I don’t want to write a sob story.” How do you hit the perfect compromise and create a personal statement you can be proud of?
Here are a few ideas to get you started on brainstorming topics:
1. It’s very hard to go back to the drawing board after writing an intro and conclusion, so just start writing your ideas down and sharing your stories and experiences. Start writing like you would a journal or blog post, using a conversational tone. Write how you speak. You can fix the grammar and spelling later. Fine-tune conclusions and themes later. Right now, get your stories on paper and see what themes naturally emerge.
2. Yes, your final personal statement will be between 500 words and 4 pages depending on each law school’s specifications. Most law schools want 2-3 pages. And yes, this is double-spaced. But don’t think about that. When you first get started you should write at least four pages so you have room to cut.
3. Don’t try to weave together everything you’ve ever done. Find things that are similar, either in subject matter or in exhibiting a trait you’re trying to demonstrate, and only weave them together if it really works.
4. Don’t reiterate things from your resume. Leave job descriptions to the resume, and if you discuss resume items in your personal statement, be sure to take a more anecdotal and lessons-learned approach rather than describing your duties and accomplishments.
5. Going in chronological order can be a trap. There is no reason to start with the day you were born, no matter how dramatic the birth might have been. Start with the most interesting thing about you – get the reader’s interest by sharing information about you that will be likable and interesting and as captivating as possible. Don’t try to “warm up” to your story with childhood memories, no matter how cute. You can always reflect back on those memories later in the essay if they were essential in formulating your goals and ideals and if they provide real context for your later achievements.
6. The goal is not to be “unique.” That’s a very high bar to set. Don’t apologize for being privileged if you were fortunate enough to fall into this category. Just tell your story, whatever it might be, and tell it in an authentic and sincere voice. Remember that the key is to present the best version of yourself, rather than to be the most interesting person on the entire planet.
7. If you did face a lot of obstacles in your life (family issues, poverty, discrimination, immigration, etc.) you face an entirely different set of problems because you may have to pick and choose among them. Sharing all of your traumatic events (parents’ divorce, food stamps, education not stressed, poor grades, working through school, dealing with depression and ADD) can be overwhelming and cause concern that you don’t really have your life together. But sharing a few of these things can make for a powerful essay. The key is sharing information that shows you’ve prepared yourself for the challenges ahead and you’ve demonstrated that you truly overcame these issues – not just that you’ve survived them, but that you overcame them.
8. Most of my law school admission consulting clients struggle to state the reasons why they are applying to a certain law school. I want to offer some hints and tricks in this regard:
A. Do I have to say why I want to go to Law School X?
No. You don’t. Unless X Law School asks you to, and then – yes – you do. If you will be writing an optional essay on Why Law and/or Why School X, then you do not need to address it in the personal statement.
B. Is there some advantage to saying why I want to go to Law School X?
Yes. If you can convince them, they’ll be more likely to admit you rather than waitlist you and make you prove you deserve a coveted admission letter that they’ll then have to report for rankings purposes.
C. So, what can I possibly say?
It’s true – sometimes law schools just don’t seem to be that different from one another, especially when they are ranked similarly.
Here are some tips:
• Don’t say you love their Environmental Law program if nothing in your application supports your interest in Environmental Law.
• Don’t pick a study abroad program as your reason; you can do any ABA school’s study abroad summer program and transfer the credits (generally).
• Don’t list reasons that could be applied to any law school equally like ‘esteemed faculty’ or ‘national reputation’ or ‘bar passage rate.’ Be specific.
• If you’re applying part-time, tell them why. Otherwise they’ll think you’re just using the part-time program to be admitted through the “back door.”
Good luck, and I hope I’ve inspired you to do a little more research and critical thinking about why you’re choosing each law school on your list.
INTRO TO ESSAY WRITING
Getting good grades in law school is easier than you think. Thorough preparation and systematic essay writing will help you maximize the points available on your final exams and the Bar Exam itself.
To write perfect essays, you need to first master the art of legal writing; which is the ability to write only what is necessary in as few words as possible and omitting anything that is not relevant. Getting in the habit of writing this way will leave you the time and space needed to address other relevant issues and thus gain more points. Professors give no points for wordiness, only for identifying the correct issues and laws, then applying them logically, which brings us to the I.R.A.C. method.
If you haven't heard of the IRAC method or something similar, you should acquaint yourself with it here to better understand the terms used in this article. Briefly though, the IRAC method is comprised of four parts: Identifying the Issue, identifying the relevant legal Rules (statutes or court precedent), Applying the rule to the issue, and your Conclusion based on that application. This system is good for organization, but is not the best layout for an essay. For a good essay answer, the answer should look more like this: Introduction; Issuea, Rulea, & Applicationa; Issueb, Ruleb, & Applicationb; Conclusion.
Read: When faced with an essay is to read the instructions and fact pattern very carefully. Often times the professor will instruct you to ignore certain issues or rules for one reason or another, and identifying those issues is a waste of valuable time that will gain you no points. Also, pay attention to every word in the fact pattern or call to question; several times I have missed a detail which changed the entire result of the question and caused a rushed edit while running out of time on the exam.
Keep Your Eyes Open: Don't make the mistake of getting tunnel vision. Any essay question will likely have multiple issues and several pertinent rules for each issue; never stop looking for more issues and rules. Even if you find all the issues and think that you are ready to start writing, always remember that each of those issues will always involve two adverse parties, so you always need to argue both ways. Remember that when writing an essay, you are the prosecution, defense, and judge, and points are available for each viewpoint.
Outline: To keep all of these things organized, take the time to outline all of these issues and rules on scratch paper. By the time you have read the facts, thought about them, and then outlined the issues, you will have a pretty good idea of how each side will argue their case and what the court's ruling would be. Now, and never prior to this point, it is time to start writing.
Introduce the case: Start your essay with a brief introduction which names all of the issues, rules, and the likely court holdings. These brief notes could gain some points even if you run out of time and don't get to them within the meat of the answer. Additionally, this introduction will help organize the answer in your mind which will help you write much more efficiently and cleanly; also, it is the last chance to spot errors without having to make major edits within your answer. This introduction will also help your professor make sense of the jumbled mess that is sure to come.
Name your Issues: After the introduction, start with the strongest issue and finish with the weakest, each getting at least one paragraph of it's own. For each paragraph/issue, state the facts that created this issue. For example:
"John Doe is charged with battery and assault because he told P that he was going to fight him, then struck P in the mouth with his fist. On the other hand, D claims that he did not intend to hit P, and was just fooling around."
Name your Rules: For each Issue/paragraph, state the rules that you will be applying, whether they be statutes, common law, or court holdings.
"According to State lawX, a battery occurs when a person intentionally causes offensive contact with another, and an Assault occurs when a person intentionally creates the apprehension of battery in another. According to X v. X, intent can be established if a threat of contact immediately precedes the unwanted contact, and that prior threat can also establish an apprehension of battery when combined with a threatening act."
Apply the Rules to the Facts: I like to skip the formal naming of issues and rules, and blend them together with the application and conclusion. I find that it saves time and makes for better reading:
"The Defendant(D) will likely be convicted of battery, and certainly be convicted of assault. He is likely guilty of Battery because he told the Plaintiff(P) that he was going to fight, then hit P's mouth with his fist. According to State law X, battery requires that D intentionally cause an unwanted contact with P, which occurred when D caused his fist to hit P. D cannot claim this act of swinging was involuntary because he admitted to the act when he stated that "he did it while playing around". D will claim that this was not an intentional act since he was just playing around, and thus the act was not battery; But, according to X v. X, the threat of battery combined with the unwanted contact enough to prove intent in this state, so D's threat and subsequent contact with P establish his intent to make contact. Thus, D is likely guilty of battery since every element (intent, cause, & unwanted contact) has been met."
"D is certainly guilty of assault, because State lawX only requires that he intentionally cause the apprehension of battery in P. Here, D stated that he was going to fight, then took a swing and actually hit D. According to X v. X, creating the apprehension of battery only requires that a person state that they are going to batter another and immediately make a motion as if to fulfill this statement. D meets both elements by stating his intention to fight then raising his fist to take a swing."
I wrote this answer, (which is based on fictitious laws by the way), in the same fashion that I would write an exam answer. You will notice that every sentence is applicable to either pertinent fact, rule, or issue; this is how you need to write; make sure you get at least one point per sentence, otherwise the sentence is a waste of time. You will also notice that I was able to write two whole paragraphs based on just a few sentences of facts and rules; this is done by approaching each element of each rule on it's own, describing and presenting each to the professor with the relevant facts, so that he can see why the element was or was not met. This is something you must do if you want to get every point possible on the test.
The answer I wrote here was far from perfect, but it is organized and hits all the key points, things which will earn points. If I had spent a little more time I could have made it a bit more readable, but you will find that the time restraints on exams make that very tough to do... your fear of running out of time overrides the need to go back. But, fortunately, everyone taking the exam will be in the same position, and the professors will be appreciative of the fact that your answers were at least organized and legible.
As you can see, mixing the issue, rule and application sections is much more efficient and organic than trying to strictly follow the I.R.A.C. bullet point method, but be cautioned that some professors may want you to follow the I.R.A.C or their own method, so be sure to ask.
For every issue in the fact patter, writing a paragraph like the one above, hitting all key points. Continue writing until you run out of issues or time, then write a brief conclusion which sums up all of your paragraphs/issues and which tells your professor how you think the court will rule on the issues individually or as a whole, whichever the case may be.
Throughout the essay, remember to write concisely so as to save time, remember to organize your answers, and argue both sides of each issue, there will be points to earn on both sides. Having practiced this system or something similar, you will produce well written and accurate answers and will be able to remain calm due to your preparation while some of your peers are freaking out and writing gibberish.